If education brings knowledge to society and civilisation
to the world, then Ethiopia’s future socio-economic development depends on the
improvement of education.
While some countries boast very old institutions of higher
learning, like the 1,360-year old University of Morocco, modern education
organised under one ministry wherein schools follow a nationally accepted
curriculum is no more than 90 years old in Ethiopia.
Earlier on, priest schools and medrases (Islamic schools)
were the only institutions of learning and taught both reading and writing of
the Amharic alphabet and religious lessons.
Although modern education is still in its infancy in
comparison with the country’s long cultural history, the steps that had been
taken in this direction by the leaders, including Emperor Haile Selassie, are
plausible. Education on one farm or another can be found behind every credible
achievement of the country.
The journey forward has been very slow; perhaps, due to
society’s strong resistance to change, particularly from Orthodox Christians who
were sceptical about modern schools’ potential to inculcate foreign faiths into
the minds of their children. In reality, some of the schools were teaching no
more than some recitations from the Bible and saying prayers in unison before
School age was insignificant as the system was a novelty
that caught almost everybody unawares. Upon joining the Tefferi Mekonnen School
in Grade One, at the age of seven, the majority of the class was between 10 and
18 years old and the total population of the school was roughly 500 boys.
At the time, there were only a few schools in Addis Abeba,
including Tefferi Mekonnen, Menelik, Haile Selassie Secondary, Medhanialem,
Kokeb Tsibah, General Wingate, and a few others.
Some of these schools were administered by foreigners from
England, France, Canada, India, Egypt, South Africa, or the United States (US).
Above Grade Four, the medium of instruction was English. Domestic subjects were
not given much emphasis as the school curriculum was influenced by the western
Schools had ample space in their compounds for adequate
playgrounds and facilities for physical training activities, libraries, and
laboratories, which established environments that were conducive to learning.
They were not mere collections of bricks and rooms furnished with desks and
In those days, Ethiopia suffered from the scarcity of
trained manpower. The government faced acute shortages of educated men and women
and had to resort to recruiting sixth graders for military officers or teacher
While there were too many vacant posts to be filled,
unemployment of educated people was never heard but students never focused on
education for the sake of finding jobs. The essence of education was to produce
intellectuals who could move the country forward in all aspects of its
Education had always been a subject close to the heart of
the emperor, who filled the portfolio of the minister of education for a long
time. Leaders and patriots were encouraged to send their children to boarding
schools in the capital. To visit school children and bring them presents were
made a duty by the emperor.
All school children were invited to the palace every
Christmas day and given sweets and sweaters. Later, the school population had
increased so much that boarding schools had to limit their intake while
secondary school students were supported by monthly stipends from the
Students who finished the year with good results were
invited to the palace and presented with prize tokens by the emperor himself.
All these encouraged students to perform better in their advanced education
In Ethiopia, there was only one college which was later
upgraded to a university. The government had prioritised agriculture and hence
opened the Alem Maya College of Agriculture and the Jimma and Ambo Agricultural
learning institutions, some of the first outside of the capital.
Since then, the investment in education has increased by
leaps and bounds. The school population has also increased by the millions.
Dozens of universities have been established throughout the country and there
are thousands of elementary and high schools.
“Private schools and colleges have contributed
significantly to education coverage,” Yohannes, the St. Mary’s School principal,
observed. “We no longer discuss coverage but focus on quality. Like any other
country, the quality of education means future development.”
Much research and development is needed to improve the
quality of education and, consequently, a huge amount of money, according to
There is much to be desired from the quality of education,
according to Shiferaw Degefu, a retired teacher.
A maid who is attending Grade Five in evening classes and
cannot even write her name properly, let alone take notes of telephone numbers,
was cited by him as an example.
Yet, it is unfair to evaluate the level of education by a
simple comparison of examination results, Shiferaw said, wondering how competent
university graduates were in their work.
There was a disappointing experience at the Ethiopian
Embassy in a foreign country, which entailed waiting for more than three hours
to obtain a signed document of a few written lines. However, that was an
isolated incident. One should not generalise.